Tips for Buying a Used Car

Owning a vehicle opens up opportunities: it allows you more choices of where to work and live and go to school, it enables you to get to important appointments, and more. A used, or “pre-owned,” vehicle can be a wise investment for your next ride—you avoid the dramatic depreciation (i.e. drop in value) of purchasing a new vehicle and you’re more likely to stay within your budget. However, shopping for a used car can be tricky because there are more questions to ask and more paperwork to check. The following advice should help you navigate safely through a minefield of lemons.

Look for a Car that Fits

Make a list of the features and qualities you need from a car. For example, do you drive long miles and require good fuel efficiency? Or do you need to be able to fit two cars eats in the back? Make a second list of features you’d like. It’s okay to go after a few bells and whistles but only after you’ve determined the vehicle meets your driving and life demands. These lists will help you pick a few models to investigate. Lastly, do a quick online search to see if any of your chosen models have had major recalls or expensive repairs at certain mileages.

History Repeats Itself

If the car you’re looking at has had problems in the past, it will probably have similar problems in the future. Ask the owner or dealer for the car’s VIN number so you can check its history. There are a number of companies that keep records of incident reports, like AutoCheck and Sometimes report details vary by company, so be sure you don’t miss anything by checking the VIN with more than one company.

Needless to say, if the seller won’t provide a VIN, you shouldn’t spend any more time looking at the car. No matter how nice the car looks, you don’t want to gamble on what’s under the hood.

Do Your Own Due Diligence

Have the vehicle checked out. It’s possible there’s been a recent problem or issue that hasn’t been reported yet. Ideally, you would bring it to a mechanic you trust. If this isn’t a possibility, then bring a knowledgeable friend or a vehicle inspection checklist (easily found online) when you view the car.

Finding Fair Prices

Compare the listings from the National Automobile Dealer’s Association, Edmunds, and Kelley Blue Book to get an idea of what you should be paying. Actual prices will probably vary, but you’ll have a starting point for negotiation.

If you have a smartphone, look for any free used car pricing apps. These apps collect information about what other users have recently paid for the same or similar model cars. You’ll have a stronger, more informed negotiating position, and you might even find a better deal.

Try Before You Buy

If everything else checks out, take the car for a test drive or two. You want to see how it handles in as many common traffic situations as possible. Take it up to speed on the highway to test for brake alignment or wheel defects. Drive in a city during rush hour to put the transmission through its paces. A slow drive through a neighborhood will let you experience the car’s handling.

A Word About Warranties

Many of the cars you look at will have certification or a warranty. Read the fine print to see what’s actually covered. And remember: even if you trust the seller or dealer, don’t skimp on your own inspection.

Return to Get Help

« Return to "Buying a Car"